I’ve been thinking about beginnings a lot lately.
One of my very favorite pieces of writing advice is “start with a change.” Since receiving that, writing beginnings has been a lot easier. I almost (almost) always know where to start the story. All I have to do (haha) is figure out which event knocks the entire story into motion.
Before I heard this piece of advice, I often heard “start with action.” Which seems reasonable. It’s better than starting with boring, right? But I think there’s a difference between action and change. Action can be change, and change can be action — but they aren’t necessarily the same thing. If you want to start with action, it’s important to make sure your action is also a change.
The word action can so easily get confused into meaning car chases, magical battles, and sword fights. Those are action scenes, right? They’re big and exciting and actiony. Except when I appear in someone’s head and they’re in the middle of a sword fight, there’s a whole list of things I don’t know.
- Why am I in that person’s head?
- Why now?
- Who is this person?
- Why do I care whether they win or lose? Just because I’m in their head doesn’t mean I care about them.
- Where the heck am I?
Questions aren’t a bad thing for the reader to have, but when I—as a reader—hop into a story and there are so many immediately…it’s difficult for the author to answer the right ones at the right time, and do so before I get fed up and read a different book. If I don’t know a character, it’s hard for me to care whether they win or get hurt. I have no emotional connection to them, and the first thing I know about them is they fight. (That can be good or bad; it probably depends on the situation.) And when there’s action and sword fighting to describe, it’s difficult to simultaneously ground the reader while keeping up the pace of a fast fight. It can be done! But it’s a tough skill.
What is grounding, you ask? Basically, it’s putting the reader inside the story so they can feel the world. It’s giving them legs and a place to stand.
You know how sometimes you start reading and you feel awkward and directionless? You have no idea where you are or why? It’s like waking up somewhere unfamiliar and not being sure how you got there. It’s uncomfortable, if not outright scary. (Since you’re in a book, it’s probably less scary. BOOK, after all.)
That’s when you’re waiting to be grounded. You want the author to tell you all the specific things you’ll need to form a mental image of the place the character is, and even get physical clues of what it might be like to be there yourself. Sight, sound, touch, taste, smell. All those things can work toward grounding the reader and making them feel more comfortable in your world.
But it’s hard to fit all that in while there’s action going on, too. Action (often) requires a quick pace and intense focus from the character. They’re thinking about their next move, their opponent’s next move, and the ten moves after those. They’re not thinking about the packed dirt under their boots, or the crowd from the weekly market gathered around to watch the fight, or the way the pressure in the air is dropping which might mean a storm is coming.
They’re really not thinking (or talking) about their country being one of the nine magical countries in the world and their magic comes from swords, so any minute now the swords they’re fighting with will burst into flames and call down angels to fight on their behalf—
Can you imagine reading that? Things just getting stranger and stranger with no explanation, the reader getting more and more confused…(For this reason, I find grounding the reader in fantasyland to be incredibly difficult. It’s hard to get the important stuff out there and still have events moving along.) Starting somewhere else — maybe before or after that fight—will give the reader a chance to become immersed in the world, and give them half a clue that a lot of weird things might be happening very soon.
Which is not to say that starting with action can’t work. It certainly can! (Anyone have examples?) But in general, I feel action for the sake of action—without clear stakes or emotional connection to the character—is boring at best. But change — now that is interesting. Start as close to the change as possible. Give me a character, a situation, and then change it, either by outside forces or the character’s own decision. Just intrigue me.